When the walls came down in the office, so did most everything else

Our company started in a drafty old house with a fireplace in the computer room and a view of the fire escape outside the comptroller's office. When we got up past the $20-million mark, we moved to a recycled warehouse with a cute name and gray padded cubicles. Now that we're concentrating on our core businesses (read: sales are down), we've given up offices altogether and taken up "hoteling."

In seven years we've gone from a house with real walls to a real office with fake ones to a virtual office without any. Are we having productivity yet?

Hoteling means simply that no one has an assigned office. We "reserve" or "book" our space as we need it and "check out" to visit clients or suppliers or to go to trade shows. Our work spaces are put together and taken apart by means of rolling desks and a few screens. Everything's on a first-come, first-served basis, like musical chairs.

Actually, it is musical chairs, given that the decision to hotel came down suspiciously close to the fifth birthday party of the CFO's daughter. Apparently he was planning to leave early, so he came in an hour earlier than his usual hour early. No one was in the office. He says that he looked around and thought about how much the company was paying per square foot to store gym bags and outdated computer manuals while employees were on the road or sick or working at home. The office was an empty photo gallery--a very expensive way to display pictures of kids and dogs.

"I went home with that," he says. "And when Melissa and her friends were all trying to squash onto that last musical chair, I got the big idea."

Everything he knows about facilities management he learned in kindergarten.

The CFO is excited about hoteling because we save money by renting only half the space we rented before. Of course, we spend all the money right back on modular furniture and storage boxes--all on wheels so we can constantly reconfigure the work areas and meeting rooms. Needless to say, there's never enough space in any office design, so we also have to buy more laptops and pagers to keep employees out of the office even more often.

But hoteling isn't exciting just to bean counters and office-furniture salespeople. It also makes consultants ecstatic because it relates to "flattening the hierarchy," "the disaggregation of work," and other reengineering-type management trends. Supposedly, if no one owns the corner office, employees treat one another more equitably. Ditto when you replace solo decision makers with ad hoc teams fashioned out of the roving hordes (most of whom are searching for the new location of the coffee machine). The idea is that creative sparks fly as people bang into each other in the rush to claim the most desirable territories in the "nonterritorial environment."

Here's what actually happened: The minute we moved into our new quarters, the place became a madhouse. Having been told to book their "room" with a concierge, arrivals were yelling "Concierge!" Some jokers from sales were shouting for room service. The few people already assigned spaces (the CEO, the CFO, the COO--anybody with initials for a job title) were trying to round up desks and chairs and were running around looking for the rolling totes and lockers they had packed everything in the day before. Uniformed guys from the moving company were doing their best to be bellhops, but it's hard to be a bellhop when everyone's baggage looks the same, the rooms don't have numbers, and a woman speaking business-buzz--the now all-important facilities manager--keeps moving the rooms themselves.

It was, in fact, a lot like the lobby of an overbooked hotel with several conventions going at the same time.

To give employees a nice surprise, the MIS staff had been up most of the night scanning pictures of kids and dogs so we could have our personal decorations in our work spaces--as screen savers. But of course the network had put the wrong screen savers on the screens, so there was more hubbub about getting a work space with someone else's kids and dogs.

The plan was to have the CEO come in an hour early and get all set up as a kind of role model. But his limo driver got lost, and the corner office was booked by Ralph, a contract engineer who's been on 20 to 30 job sites and seen it all before. Ralph offered to move, but the CEO remembered that we pay contract engineers by the hour (and how much), so he told Ralph to stay right there in the trophy office.

Apparently, when the first rush came in, the CEO was down on the floor trying to get the wires plugged in so that Ralph could see the screen saver of his two Akitas: Intel and Motorola.

Within a week the facilities manager had ordered big-wheeled units, like movable armoires, so that everyone could have a designated workstation to roll around. This reduced the sheer numbers of rolling stock, but the armoires towed like trailers--and looked like trailers--and pretty soon the salespeople, who were always checking in and out, were being called "trailer trash."

Ralph, who often works short contracts out of his RV, spends a lot of time in trailer parks, and he didn't think singling out the salespeople was fair. According to Ralph, the term trailer trash originated among trailer-park regulars to make fun of newcomers who didn't understand the unwritten rules about who gets the best spaces.

"Later on, the folks in the neighboring houses started calling us all 'trailer trash,' " he explained one day as I was fixing his screen saver. "The problem here is that you office hotelers don't have those unwritten rules. So all of you are trailer trash, all the time."

I have to admit, it's kind of true. Instead of teams we have gangs. Instead of brainstorming we have trailerspotting. Each restructuring sends caravans of refugee trailers across our office space as if it were a high-tech Bosnia. Business has slowed to a crawl.

We need something even cheaper, something even more group-oriented, something with rules. The facilities manager has heard about a kind of virtual office being used in Europe that quadruples the use of space by hoteling in all four dimensions.

Our next move: hosteling. I hope it doesn't turn out to be hospicing.

Moe Meyerson is a manager at a rapidly growing small company.